Atmospheric Haze: A Landscape Photographer’s Dream or Nightmare?

This article was first published in Outdoor Photography Canada magazine over one year ago. To keep up with the freshest content from top Canadian nature photographers we highly recommend subscribing.

The view from Bald Butte during a hazy sunset (Cypress Hills Interprovincial Park, Centre Block, Saskatchewan)

Nature photographers like their landscapes pristine; generally, we don’t want to see any ‘hand of man’ in our pictures but rather we want to present nature in her purest and finest form. So we venture forth in hopes of recording clean and crisp mountain, desert, and forest landscapes. When nature photographers encounter atmospheric haze it dampens their enthusiasm for making pictures like chores ruin the day of a kid on summer holidays. We know of many photographers who have cancelled trips to areas like the Canadian Rockies when they heard that forest fires have obscured the clear alpine skies. It’s a shame that our preconceptions of what’s good and what’s bad colours what and how we take photos. Atmospheric haze can offer up unique opportunities for stunning photography if we’re open to seeing beyond our expectations.

The low tonal contrast and scattered light of atmospheric haze kills colours so why not work with this condition and make B+W images that emphasizes the subtle gradations in tone in the scene (Lower Waterfowl Lake, Banff National Park, Alberta).

 

Forest fire haze creates scattered particulate matter that helps add drama to the sky (Upper Brazeau River Valley, Jasper National Park, Alberta).

Atmospheric haze results when smoke, dust and other dry particles accumulate in relatively dry air. Most of the time we blame human activity on atmospheric haze and consider it un-natural. For example, in the fall, activities from the harvest of cereal crops stirs up dust and particulates that results in hazy conditions. Fires burning, dust from gravel roads and particulate pollution from industry also creates atmospheric haze. But atmospheric haze has been around longer than humans. Lightning strikes burn vast tracts of forest, volcanoes spew out tonnes of particulate matter, wind storms churn up dust from dunes… the list goes on. So rather than fight or avoid haze, embrace it! Haze is a natural part of nature.

Atmospheric haze, in this case caused by a forest fire started by a lightning strike, looks blue because short blue wavelengths of light are bounced off of particulate matter in the air to be recorded by our eyes and cameras. To retain the blue cast be sure to keep your white balance set to ‘daylight’ or ‘sunny’.

 

When haze kills colours turn to monochrome.

Atmospheric haze does several interesting things that can be used by the creative photographer. First, it reduces contrast in the scene due to the scattering of light by the particulate matter. These low contrast scenes look moody, ethereal and even painterly. Second, haze selectively scatters light waves with shorter wavelengths, like blue, being scattered more than red wavelengths. This is why haze and smoke look blue – the blue wavelengths bounce off and are recorded by our eyes (and cameras). Red wavelengths tend to pierce through the particulate matter and so in backlit situations we see warm colours coming through the haze. Anyone who has seen the sun through thick smoke knows the sun appears as a reddish ball even at mid-day because only the red wavelengths of light are passing through the smoke. As photographers, we can use this natural filtering effect of light bouncing off of or moving through haze to add further mood to our photographs. Indeed, atmospheric haze creates incredible mood and ambience. Just ask anyone who has travelled to India or China whether haze has added to the mood of their travel photos. You’ll get a resounding yes!

Mid-day sun becomes an orange fireball when filtered through thick smoke.

Winter winds churn up blowing snow, ice and dust causing hazy conditions in the distance (Abraham Lake, Alberta)

And so, when it’s hazy, don’t give up. Your expectations of clear, crisp, and contrasty nature scenes has evaporated. Advanced shooters see the potential in the murky skies. Look for scenes where the blue, low contrast light works with the subject to give a dream-like mood. Or, find situations where the glowing warm backlight creates an ethereal glow. Some of my favorite images have been created when nature (or human activity) created atmospheric haze and I was open to possibilities beyond my expectations. Rather than the haze being a nightmare that destroyed my nature outing, it became a dream that allowed me to create memorable images. Happy hazy shooting!

Dust from a gravel road creates beams of light when back lit by the sun (Water Valley, Alberta)

Hazy days help add mood and atmosphere to scenes we would normally pass by (river path in Cochrane, Alberta).

About the Author

I am a Canadian landscape and outdoor photographer who loves long hikes in the woods, yummy food, hairy dogs, good company and a good guitar jam.

5 Comments

  1. Marty Prentice
    July 18, 2017

    With all the smoke being generated in BC, our opportunities to capture such ethereal images in our three western provinces will difficult to pass up

    Reply
  2. Veronica
    July 18, 2017

    Thank you for sharing. I agree 100% with every thing in these articles. Myself along with three other photographers yesterday July 17 th ,headed to the foothills, to capture some of the hazy landscapes. We all came home with something different that we saw. One becomes a great photographer by adapting to Natures Conditions and work with what it gives us on any given day.

    Reply
  3. Lynn smith
    July 18, 2017

    This inspires me!

    Reply
  4. Lynn Martel
    July 19, 2017

    Thanks for the inspiration – from very smokey Canmore in the Canadian Rockies!

    Reply
  5. Samantha Chrysanthou
    July 19, 2017

    Extremely challenging conditions for those forced to flee, and with health effects for those downwind…but there is always an image to make, isn’t there?

    Reply

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